Kingpins gun down Cooley to land title number 20
THE hair-raising 'Welcome to the Jungle' bellowed from the Tannoys as the teams took to the stage, but it was Newtown Blues who emphatically out-gunned Cooley Kickhams to come up smelling of roses on Sunday.
In the end it was every bit as comfortable as the final scoreline suggests, but Louth's most successful club did have to weather a strong start and a spirited second-half rally from Cooley, before claiming title number 20 at the Gaelic Grounds.
Goals at crucial intervals from Man-of-the-Match, Andy McDonnell, and his nearest challenger, Conor Branagan, ultimately broke green and gold hearts, and the now familiar feeling of a final defeat had plenty of time to sink in as Blues cruised through the final quarter to win their first Joe Ward crown since 2008.
For Cooley the 23-wait becomes 24, but like Dublin in Croke Park a week earlier, the Blues refused to be lured in by the romance of their opponent's plight. Like Mayo, Cooley were dealt another painful reminder that success is never a divine right.
Having set up to contain rather than attack in previous finals, Cooley were much more positive this time around as both sides lined out with very orthodox systems.
Pat McDonagh seemed to deploy a horses for courses approach, refusing the temptation to pack his midfield, an important tactic in disposing of champions St Pats in the semi-final.
Perhaps confident this was a midfield battle they could win the old-fashioned way, dangermen like McDonnell and Colm Judge were deployed further forward and despite some wayward early shooting the more expansive approach paid off handsomely.
Cooley's failure to cope with the direct running of McDonnell, and later Branagan, ultimately proved their undoing, and it was no surprise to see both men racking up 1-3 apiece.
It was no great shock to see Brian White top-scoring for Cooley with four frees, but the next highest marksmen on either side were Patrick Sheelan and Colm Judge, both of whom could probably count themselves lucky to be involved at all.
Sheelan was first to receive a sympathetic ear from the Hearings Committee, who rescinded a straight red card he picked up in the semi-final against O'Connell's, while Judge's reprieve came much later in the day as one of the yellow cards he was shown by Kevin Brady for high tackles against Pats was also apparently rescinded on appeal.
In the end it was an eye for an eye as they kicked three points apiece, but it was more unwanted scrutiny for the Hearings Committee at the business end of the season.
Of more concern to Cooley going into the game was Conor Rafferty's health, and it was clear from an early stage that the Louth man was still feeling the effects of a bad cut to his knee picked up against O'Connell's, and he was subsequently withdrawn at half-time.
He wasn't immediately missed as Cooley drew level at 0-9 to 1-6 nine minutes into the second half. It was now or never time for Adrian Sheelan's men, but despite having a strong wind in their sails, they failed to score again for 10 minutes and in the meantime, the champions elect clocked up 1-4 without reply.
From the Blues point of view that was the match-winning surge. Rather than inspiring Cooley, Sean McDonald's leveller seemed to light a fire under the Drogheda men (no pun intended!), while the introduction of Branagan was the spark that ignited it all.
One of the stars of 2011, the former Wolfe Tones man kicked 1-1 in that crucial purple patch and added a further two points later on to extend his side's lead to eight for the first time.
Man-of-the-Match McDonnell had a similar, if slightly less dramatic, influence on proceedings. The Louth star's goal on 20 minutes came after Cooley had toiled against the breeze to open a 0-5 to 0-1 lead, but more than that it settled the Blues into a scoring rhythm.
They kicked six wides before that, one of which was a very real goal chance for Robbie Carr, who dragged his effort badly to the left with only Neil Gallagher to beat.
McDonnell's goal split the teams at the break, but that statisitc was just as much down to the heroics of goalkeeper Conor Barton as his celebrated teammate.
As the clock ticked into injury-time, Brian White made a rare, but menacing break through the heart of the Blues' defence, and teed up sub Sean McDonald for a gilt-edged goal chance. He only had 17 year-old Barton to beat, but the youngest man on the pitch belied his tender years with a wonderful save to keep his team in front at the interval.
Given the elements it was still a precarious lead for the Blues and it was duly wiped out within ten minutes of the re-start as possession deeper in enemy territory yielded points for Brian Donnelly and McDonald and a couple of frees which White converted with ease.
Hugh McGinn's free at the other end had earned some respite for Blues, but despite coming out all guns blazing, it was difficult to shake the feeling that Cooley were going to need a goal.
McDonald's first-half strike was to be their only genuine effort at the target and when Branagan gave Gallagher no chance with a ferocious finish, the light at the end of the tunnel started to fade once more.
The final quarter was very similar to last year's decider at the same venue as Blues easily kept their opponents at arms length, while the introductions of Sean O'Neill and Cormac McCarthy were never likely to stem the blue tide.
Fittingly McDonnell had the last say, plundering an exquisite point from way out wide on the left in stoppage time.
The former St Fechin's man fully deserved his Man-of-the-Match gong, and after seeing off all of the big guns this summer the Blues richly deserve their seat at the summit of Louth football.
NEWTOWN BLUES: Conor Barton; Niall Costello, Thomas Costello, Andrew Tinley; Stephen Moonan, Eoghan Judge, James Murray; Keith Lynch 0-1, John Kermode 0-1; Barry Sharkey, Hugh McGinn 0-3f, Andy McDonnell 1-3; Derek Kierans 0-1, Colm Judge 0-3 (0-1f), Robbie Carr. Subs: Jamie Carr for B Sharkey (25), Conor Branagan 1-3 for R Carr (41), Brian Kermode for J Murray (51).
COOLEY KICKHAMS: Neil Gallagher; Richie Brennan, Keith White, Alan Page; Patrick McGarth, Conor McGuinness, Shane Marks; Brian Donnelly 0-2, Conor Rafferty; Aoghan McGuinness 0-1, Brian White 0-4f, Darren Marks; Patrick Sheelan 0-3 (0-1f), Sean Donnelly, Ciaran Sheelan 0-1. Subs: Sean McDonald 0-1 for S Donnelly (24), PJ McGivern for C Rafferty (ht), Michael Rafferty 0-1 for D Marks (ht), Sean O'Neill for S Marks (51), Cormac McCarthy for A McGuinness (58).
REFERREE: Aidan Dunne.